The Court of Publications hasn’t issued a prison sentence in Lebanon for years. Yesterday, however, it broke the habit. Judge Roukoz Rizk issued a two-month jail sentence against a tweeter named Jean Assy, on the grounds of “slander, libel and contempt against President Michel Suleiman on Twitter.” Among all tweets that are filled with insults, threats, calls for murder, sectarian provocation and violence, nothing provoked the judicial body except for tweets “demeaning the president.”
Lebanon is facing a legal precedent, which necessarily suggests that Twitter and other social media are subject to the articles of the Law of Publications — a controversial and thorny issue per se.
On the one hand, everybody realizes that it is impossible to monitor all social media posts. First, on the technical level it is difficult to do so. Second, monitoring posts would jeopardize the obvious rights of the users to express themselves through their personal social media pages and accounts. In past years, Twitter users did not spare any president around the world, starting with US President Barack Obama and ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and reaching French President Francois Hollande. A prison sentence was never issued in these cases, though.
On the other hand, the freedom allowed on social media facilitates the spread of accounts that issue threats of rape or incite violence and pedophilia. Twitter allows users to report such accounts and even pursues some of their owners judicially. For instance, on Jan. 24, a British court sentenced a man and a woman to jail because they tweeted rape threats against a feminist activist.
Where does Assy’s case stand in this regard? In the summer of 2013, Assy insulted President Suleiman through a series of tweets, which pushed the Anti-Cybercrime Office to summon him to investigation. After that, the public prosecution started pursuing him, and judgment against him was finally issued yesterday. Nizar Saghieh, a Lebanese lawyer, considered Assy’s jail sentence to be “alarming.”
“The Court of Publications stopped giving jail sentences in the 1990s and has limited itself to issuing fines. Even when jail sentences were issued, the ruling was overturned before the Court of Appeal, like in Ghada Eid’s case,” Saghieh said.
Saghieh noted that Article 387 of the Penal Code states, “With the exception of libel directed at the head of state or prime minister, a defendant shall be judged innocent, if the substance of libel had to do with the public office and was proven to be truthful.”
“The ruling against Assy reminds us of ugly and dangerous precedents, and it is similar to what is happening in the Gulf countries, where individuals are imprisoned for seven to eight years for offending the rulers. This is still happening, although prison sentences related to the expression of opinions were removed from the Laws of Publication in Tunisia, for instance, and Egypt is following in these footsteps,” Saghieh added.
Saghieh indicated that US law does not pursue any citizen for slandering a public figure, under the pretext that “the public figure is well-protected through many platforms and is fully capable of responding to his critics.”
He added that it is still early to include the social media websites in the Law of Publication. There is a draft law underway in parliament to determine how to deal with such issues in a way that does not harm the freedom of expression. Saghieh was surprised that a lawsuit was filed against Assy specifically, especially since the president faced many similar criticizing campaigns in the past.
“Does the judiciary only take action against weak people to make them respect the powerful ones?” Saghieh wondered.
Assy told As-Safir that after he was questioned in July 2013 regarding the said tweets he was then referred to the public prosecution. He added that his attorney, May Khreish, presented formal pleas, in which she stated that Twitter is not a publishing medium. The pleas were refused.
Assy, a computer engineer, noted that he will ask for appeal, and he asserted that “the judgment is sort of malicious since the Court of Publications has not issued any prison sentence in years.”
“During my trial, I noticed that the procedures in my case were hastened, unlike all similar cases. It was as though they wanted to issue a sentence as fast as possible,” he said.
Assy added that he wrote his famous tweets “because he felt provoked after the army was attacked in Arsal.”
“My brother is a soldier, and I felt that the president was not playing his role to protect the army. On the contrary, he sent people to negotiate with the army’s attackers. I am not saying insults are the right way to go, but why insist on trying me when people who are publicly inciting murder and bloodshed of the innocent are left alone? Why is the government afraid of the tweets of Ahmad al-Assir and Fadel Shaker, but is acting all tough on my tweets? Why is the president preoccupied with my case, while he has much bigger fish to fry that is of concern to the Lebanese? I am an ideal citizen. I have never even gotten a speeding ticket, and I have never broken the law. I will not accept to be imprisoned in the same cell as terrorist bombers,” Assy stated.
Serious legislative efforts are needed to distinguish between the freedom of expression and the threat to national security on Twitter and to protect the right of users to express themselves, first and foremost. This would serve to avoid turning Twitter accounts into additional prisons and new spaces for surveillance. Nevertheless, in the wait for the parliament to continue performing its duties, what is certain is that the tweets of Assy or any citizen who criticizes a politician or a leader do not deserve to be treated as dangerous crimes that call for imprisonment and reprimand.
Twitter is a space open to all ideas, and no president can defend or impose respect for his position through prosecuting tweeters or blocking users who disagree with him. Just by following the campaign, “We Are All Jean Assy” (Kilna Jean Assy) that was launched yesterday on social media to support Assy, it is evident that many Lebanese consider his jail sentence a serious attack on their public freedoms.
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